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Mothers create art installation at human rights museum to honour those who have died from overdose

Two grieving mothers who lost children to fentanyl poisoning are honouring hundreds of people who have died from a toxic drug supply through an art installation at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

The display, titled Gone Too Soon, was unveiled in the national museum’s community corridor on June 4. The art piece features more than 500 poppies in a variety of purple hues, with messages from loved ones marking each petal. 

Janis Gillam and Arlene Last‐Kolb thought of the idea two years ago.

They paired the poppy, an international symbol of remembrance, with the colour purple, which represents overdose awareness. The poppies were arranged in a “flowing river” formation to embody sorrow for those who are gone too soon, Gillam said. 

While the project was a true “labour of love” and pays tribute to the loved ones of many families, Gillam said she took it on to remember her daughter Phoebe, who died at 31.

A woman wearing a purple shirt holds a picture frame containing a photograph of her daughter. Other picture frames sit on steps leading to a large stone building.
Janis Gillam, seen here in a 2022 file photo, holds a photo of her daughter Phoebe. Both Phoebe and Gillam’s stepson died from drug overdoses within a span of five months. She wants the government to do more to protect people and reduce harm. (Lamia Abozaid/CBC)

“She was just one of those people — everyone loved her instantly. She was an amazing young woman. She was an awesome mom, but she made decisions that weren’t necessarily the right ones,” Gillam said. 

Phoebe was involved in a workplace accident and injured her back at 18. She was prescribed OxyContin, which led her down a path of substance abuse and addiction, said Gillam. She died in July 2020.

As she mourned the loss of her daughter, Gillam got a call that her stepson, 37-year-old Chris, died of fentanyl-related overdose in British Columbia five months later. She remembers him as a proud father and welder, who was artistic and had a great sense of humour.

Gillam said he was also prescribed OxyContin after he was in a car accident about six years ago.

A man smiles while wearing a bandana around his head.
Chris Read, 37, was a proud father and welder, says Gillam. (Submitted by Janis Gillam)

They were among the more than 42,000 people in Canada who died from opioid-related overdoses between 2016 and 2023, according to Statistics Canada

“People just have to realize this is a preventable disease, and they should not be dying,” Gillam said. “Our loved ones should not be dying. They deserved better. My daughter deserved better.”

In Manitoba, preliminary data from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for January and February — the most recent available — says there were 89 suspected substance-related deaths reported in the first two months of the year. Last year, preliminary data says there were 445 suspected overdose deaths in Manitoba, with 54 in December alone. 

“My mantra is if we don’t act today, more people are just going to keep dying. So we need to act today so that people don’t die tomorrow,” Gillam said. 

Call for safer supply

She believes the province is on the right track with its commitment to establish a supervised consumption site in downtown Winnipeg and have multiple drug-testing machines. But government also needs to focus on regulated supply to ensure people aren’t using tainted drugs, she said.

“I hope that Manitoba will lead the way, that they will see the need,” said Last-Kolb, who also wants to see the province work with the federal government to regulate a safer supply of street drugs.

Last-Kolb said the Gone Too Soon installation is a continuation of the advocacy work she started after her son Jessie, 24, died from an overdose in 2014. 

A woman holds a picture of her son while sitting down outside near a river.
In a 2020 file photo, Arlene Last-Kolb holds up a photo of her son Jessie, who died from fentanyl poisoning in 2014. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

“As mothers, you don’t stop doing things for your kids because they’re not here. In fact, maybe sometimes you gotta do more,” she said. 

“Not only do I grieve the memories that I had, I grieve the memories of all the ones that I won’t have.”

Last-Kolb hopes the installation at the museum will remind people that overdose deaths are a human rights issue. 

On Monday, she is meeting with Manitoba’s deputy minister of education to discuss more educational opportunities for students to learn about toxic drug supply and preventing overdoses through the use of naloxone.

“I believe wholeheartedly that they will be part of the change that comes. So the more we educate them, the more they will speak up,” said Last-Kolb.

Purple poppies with messages from loved ones are written on each petal.
Arlene Last-Kolb and Janis Gillam created the art installation Gone Too Soon, which honours people who have died from a toxic drug supply. (Submitted by Canadian Museum for Human Rights)

Gillam said Phoebe’s son, who is now 13 years old, visited the museum through a school field trip on Thursday and saw the two messages he wrote on poppies in memory of his mom. 

On one poppy, which includes an illustration of a green leaf, he wrote, “I love you mommy and I miss you.”

“For him to see that there, that means a lot in his heart,” Gillam said, adding that they share stories about her daughter every day. 

Gone Too Soon will be featured at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights until December.

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